Hard realities need soft skills

14th December 2007 at 00:00

The stereotype of the sullen, uncommunicative teenager who turns up late and puts no effort into their appearance is not just a good subject for a Victor Meldrew-style rant. According to employers, it is damaging the productivity of business and restricting the career opportunities of Britain's youth.

But such problems are not limited to teenagers. Adults can also lack what are politely called "employability skills" if they have spent too long away from the workplace.

Cornwall College is in the vanguard of a new project aimed at putting such "soft skills" at the very heart of vocational training.

It is one of nine centres in the UK that are running a new programme designed by Deloitte, the accountancy firm, to create a workforce that is employable rather than simply well-skilled.

The chosen colleges will train lecturers throughout their regions to teach students a new employability course alongside their existing vocational programmes.

It may be hard for some to believe soft-skills training could turn us into a nation of coherent call centre operators, attentive waiting staff or non-sexist construction site workers - or that one day a new generation of eager staff, who love working in teams, coming up with ideas and supporting their colleagues, will grace every workplace, supported by caring managers.

The Deloitte scheme will not bring such a utopian vision to reality overnight, but Cornwall College clearly believes this is a tiny acorn from which a mighty oak will grow.

Deloitte has accepted two of the college's lecturers to train colleagues in their region to teach the employability courses.

Both went through a demanding application process, which involved sending footage of themselves speaking about their desire to get involved to selectors at Deloitte.

The two lecturers - Melanie Moore and Jennie Balmer - will instruct 20 lecturers in how to deliver Deloitte's level two course to students who they already teach on a vocational course.

Like many in FE, these lecturers are concerned that a lack of communication skills is proving a handicap to otherwise highly-skilled students.

Steve Griffin, head of the college's school of education and training, said: "Concerns have been raised about the employability of people coming out of school, FE and universities.

"It's about turning up on time and thinking about their appearance, but it's also about self-motivation and organisation.

"Deloitte sees FE as being in the best position to do something about this, and they have spent a lot of time, energy and money establishing an employability skills programme."

One benefit of the scheme is its ability to equip students with transferable skills, enabling them to change jobs more easily should they choose to change career. This puts power in the hands of employees.

"We have tended to think in terms of planning the workforce and thinking how many people we will need doing a certain job in 20 years," he said. "This is not about hammering people into square pegs so they can fit into square holes."

SMARTENING UP STUDENTS' ACT

- The course starts by familiarising students with the nature of employment. They agree a contract, which sets out what they can expect from the course and makes clear what is expected from them in return.

- Students are introduced to working in teams and analysing their strengths and weaknesses.

- Students are encouraged to examine what changes they need to make to their behaviour in order to become more valuable in the workplace.

- Work on presentation includes a fashion show scenario, which encourages an understanding of the importance of first impressions and non-verbal communication.

- One session looks at the skills needed to put together a convincing presentation. Students are made familiar with PowerPoint.

- Students are introduced to the concept of being managed and managing others, and to the challenges involved in being "the boss".

- Students meet employers to get first-hand knowledge of industry and develop confidence in dealing with potentially scary business people.

- Communication skills are developed through listening and problem-solving exercises, which test students' ability to assimilate and act on information.

- CV-writing skills are looked at - including the all-important matter of what information should be included. Alongside this, there is tuition on how to impress during an interview.

- Work placements, already an important feature of vocational courses, are beefed up. Students record their progress in workbooks, which helps them learn from the experience and enables the college to measure the effectiveness of placements.

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